Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Two Years!

Last summer, when I was six months pregnant, I ran into M, a former coworker who is now a respected professor at an excellent university. When he saw that I was pregnant, he told me that his first child was born while he was still in grad school finishing his PhD, and he didn't get any research done at all for two full years after the baby was born. The only way he managed to graduate was that his wife eventually quit her job to stay home full-time, thus allowing M to ignore his family for a while and really focus on finishing his dissertation.

M is a really nice guy. He's friendly and sociable and I've never heard him be mean to anyone. He's normally a super supportive kind of guy. So it really took me by surprise when he assured me, several times, that if my husband was going to keep his job, he was fairly certain that I would never graduate. Ever. And as we talked further, he kept shaking his head and calling me naive. (He didn't use the word "naive." Like I said, he's not mean. But that was the basic attitude.)

At the time, I was very much taken aback. And not a little pissed off. But you know what? I haven't really made any progress on my research in the past nine months. The last two months of my pregnancy, I was uncomfortable and distracted and suffering from pregnancy-induced RSI, which made it very hard to accomplish research that is almost entirely done in front of a computer. Then I was on maternity leave for four months, which kind of turned into five months because of childcare problems. But I've been back at work full-time for two months now, and I've still gotten nothing done. And I feel horrible about it. And my advisors are, um, noticing. (Yeah, they didn't notice until recently. Which actually isn't too weird, because that's sort of a result of where I am in the PhD process right now.)

When S and I were trying to get pregnant, and even during my pregnancy, I had this plan for what it would be like to be in grad school while taking care of a baby. My mom was a working mom, I saw how she balanced things for my entire life, and grad school is basically a job (though a bit more intense and all-consuming than your average job). Also, despite M's attitude, I can now say with a fair amount of certainty that I wasn't naive about how much work it would be taking care of a baby. I was a little naive about the long-term effects of sleep deprivation, and I'll admit that I really thought that LL would be sleeping through the night by now, but other than that, I wasn't too far off the mark in my expectations.

But I now think that I was wrong about one major thing. I was convinced that succeeding simultaneously at school and motherhood was going to be all about multitasking and being organized. And those things are definitely important. But there's a third piece that is at least as important as those, and it's something that I didn't take into account, and I'm discovering that it's something that I suck at: compartmentalization. I desperately need to learn to compartmentalize. A lot of why I haven't been getting any research done, despite being hyper-organized, is that I simply cannot focus on work when I'm at work. I get to my office, and my mind is flooded with all things LL.

When I'm home with LL, I am very focused on him. What I'm not able to do when I'm with him are tasks related to him that require some brain activity and focus. Things like reading about naps and sleep habits and getting infants to sleep through the night. Reading about upcoming developmental milestones. Figuring out if he's eating enough milk, and how much solids he's supposed to be eating at this age. Planning for upcoming travel with LL. Making plans for everything that we'll need to do (very soon!) to baby proof our house. Making lots and lots and lots of to-do lists. Etc. Etc. Etc.

Compounding the problem is where I am in my graduate career. Most of my research is done, but the bits that haven't been finished yet are those random nebulous ones that are a bit hard to define and require more brain power than anything concrete. The main project that was funding the first several years of my research is over, and I'm being supported mainly on overhead funds meant for end-stage PhD students, which means that nobody is really counting on my results right now except me. And "results" is a strong word, since the stuff that I'm trying to finish right now is fairly theoretical, so it would be hard to measure progress anyway. It's all fairly squishy as far as evidence-of-work-or-progress is concerned. From talking to friends who have finished their PhDs, I understand that it's fairly common for students to stall a bit at this point in their grad school careers. The big things are done, the hard-core writing isn't happening yet, but the tying-things-together-and-finishing is so abstract, and progress so hard to measure, that it's normal to spin your wheels for a bit. (For example, check out this graph. That global minimum in the fifth year? When your advisor loses funding and you haven't defended yet? That's me.)

But for me, the combination of baby distractions and thesis wheel-spinning seems deadly. And it's all compounded exponentially by the months of sleep deprivation, which have left my brain in a pervasive fog that I cannot seem to lift. A perfect storm of non-accomplishment.

I've tried all the normal things to get myself focused. Setting near-term deadlines. Breaking up tasks into small, bite-sized tasks. Making daily schedules. But then I sit down to work, and my mind gets irretrievably distracted. And then I feel terrible about myself for wasting time and not getting anything productive done. Again. Which doesn't help. I just feel like I'm continually treading water at work, but not going anywhere.

Oddly, the only thing that makes me feel at all better about the situation is my friend M. His comment about his research stalling for two years, which pissed me off last summer, now makes me feel comforted. He didn't make any progress for two years, yet he still graduated (eventually), and is having a very successful research career. So maybe I just need to let myself wait out the suckiness that is my work life right now, and trust that I'll still graduate some day.


  1. If it makes you feel any better. I know two female grad students who had babies towards the end of their grad student career and graduated (with some delays, but not quite 2 years worth). So, I'm sure that you'll graduate too. What may be holding you up more is the spinning wheels nature of your work (not to discount the 'distraction' of LL). I know that I'm loathe to finish things of that nature. Good luck and I'm sure this will pass soon!

  2. iu am sorry you are feeling so tired and overwhelmed. I do hope it gets better for you

  3. It took me a long time to get back into working after my son was born. In my case I took 8 weeks off, but it was probably six months after getting back to work before I was able to make any meaningful contributions.

    And those 8 weeks may as well have been a year, I was that disoriented when I came back to work.

  4. Good luck Nicky, I am glad that a comment that used to make you feel bad now provides comfort. So funny how life works. You can do it - it just takes perseverance and pluck, which I am sure you have :). Keep on truckin'!

  5. I think you can do it, but it will take time and adjustment. Regarding the sleep, I like the book by the Ferber guy (Solve my child's sleep problem), who gets a really bad rap by the way. Also I read that you are making your own baby food, which is awesome but I'm sure it's time-consuming. Maybe you could give him some jarred stuff occasionally? Just to give yourself a break. I honestly don't know how you find the time!


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